Seth Interview

Seth is the award-winning creator of Palooka-Ville and It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken, both from Drawn & Quarterly. He's also the designer of Fantagraphics' The Complete Peanuts. With book designers gaining wider recognition these days, Worlds of Westfield Content Editor Roger Ash recently contacted Seth to find out more about book design and his work on The Complete Peanuts.

Westfield: There have been a few book designers who've gained favor recently - Chip Kidd, Chris Ware, Dave McKean, etc. What exactly does a book designer do?

Seth: Well, I can only speak for myself but my intentions in designing a book (either for myself or for someone else) is to create a context for the work to sit inside. In other words - it's not simply packaging the contents under a nice cover - it's taking the work and trying to create an overall atmosphere that reflects the nature of the contents and prepares the reader to enter that world. This is done by creating art (or design) that sets a tone. In the Peanuts book, I have tried to keep the colours very low-key and the design rather austere. I want Schulz's work to be seen in the sophisticated light it deserves. Accordingly, I have stayed away from anything that seems to indicate children or pop culture messages. I used a number of double page spreads and duo-tone colour schemes in the interior to create a moody avenue for the reader to cross as he approaches Schulz's strips. Similarly in a book of my Father's memoirs, Bannock, Beans, and Black Tea (due this spring from Drawn and Quarterly) I focused on the landscape in which the story was set and made that the predominate tone of the book utilizing small landscape spots and big double page vignettes.

I think beautiful things can be done with the simple elements of a book: cloth, endpapers, title pages etc., etc. Too often book designers are just thinking about the cover.

Westfield: What brought you to work on The Complete Peanuts and are you apprehensive about working on such a high profile project?

Seth: Simply my life long love of Peanuts. I have always felt such a deep connection to Schulz's work and he was really my most formative influence as a cartoonist. Oddly, I don't feel much trepidation about working on the books. I guess I've always felt like Peanuts somehow belonged to me personally (as I'm sure many readers do) and that my deep feelings for the work will point me in the right direction. Looking at what has been done with the packaging of previous Peanuts books over the last 20 or 30 years, I honestly don't think I could do worse. I think Sparky is guiding my hand on this one.

Westfield: You obviously want the design of the book to fit the look and feel of Charles Schulz's work. Is it difficult to suppress your own style and work in someone else's?

Seth: An impossible task. My style will shine through no matter what I do. I am trying to be very sensitive to Schulz's work though. I have put a fair amount of thought into how I want his work presented to an audience. A lot of the sophistication and depth of Schulz's masterpiece has been underappreciated in the last few decades. I would love it if I could make people see it freshly again. That is a big task though - and I doubt anything I do could erase all that pop cultural saturation.

Westfield: What, if any, specific challenges are there in designing a comic strip collection?

Seth: Not many really. Clarity of presentation is important. Too often people feel the need to fancy up the production for comic strips - adding colour on the page or little dingbat icons along the borders. I think the strips should sit as boldly and simply on the pages as possible. The rest of the book should merely usher the reader in and out of the book with as little fuss as possible. The reader shouldn't think about the design too much.

Westfield: How far ahead are you working and how important is unity of design in such a long running series of books?

Seth: I will simply work on one book at a time. However, they all follow a very tight and rigid design scheme. Each book will be recognizably different but the entire series will have a very uniform look.

Elements within each book will change as the decades of Peanuts pass. The design system is locked in on book one. After that it is simply a matter of evolving each of these elements; e.g. the endpapers change every decade - but they will continue to be made up from Sparky's background drawings - even into the very empty backgrounds of the last decade.

Westfield: You have to answer to other people on this project such as United Media and Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates. What is your working relationship with them like?

Seth: So far I have heard nothing but kind words of support.

Westfield: What has been your favorite part of this project?

Seth: A terrible thing to say - but I have particularly enjoyed going in to Schulz's artwork, taking elements out and fiddling with them to make up design elements. It's like drawing with someone else's hands but with my mind.

Westfield: What challenges and satisfactions are there in doing design work as compared to working on your own comics?

Seth: It's challenging because as a cartoonist you are tempted to get right in there and draw. The satisfactions are trying to create something aesthetically beautiful that is divorced from your own writing voice.

Sometimes it is a pleasure to get away from your own pet messages.

Westfield: Do you have any other projects you're working on you'd like to mention?

Seth: As I mentioned above, I have a book coming out that I collaborated with my 86 year-old father on. A memoir of his bitter childhood in the depression: Bannock, Beans and Black Tea. Also, another book from D and Q this spring is my first half of my current graphic novel - Clyde Fans - Book One.

Westfield: Any closing comments?

Seth: Working on this Schulz's collection is a literal dream come true. When I was younger, I prayed that such a series would come about just so I could purchase it and read it. Being connected (no matter how peripherally) to the great man himself is a real honour.